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Mything in Action: Frogs are People Too

Mything in Action: Frogs are People Too

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With Fat Tuesday just around the corner, Disneyland recently unveiled its own Mardi Gras celebration as part of the park's Family Fun Weekends programming. The event runs through March 6, with Princess Tiana and other characters from Disney's The Princess and the Frog leading the New Orleans Square festivities. So it seems like as good a time as any to "dig a little deeper" and tease out the mythic source code of the 2009 animated release. Ready? Then let's hop to it!

Princess Tiana leads the Mardi Gras parade ... But do you know the
REAL story behind The Princess and the Frog? Copyright Disney
Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

 "Oooh--yuck! I'd never, ever kiss a boy!" That's pretty much the attitude of most little girls when faced with the prospect of joining lips with the opposite sex. Reverse the genders and the reaction still applies. It's no coincidence that this is the same response pre-school-age Tiana has in the opening scene of Disney's The Princess and the Frog as her mother recounts the classic fairy tale of "The Frog Prince."

Of course, young Tiana is expressing disgust at the idea of kissing a frog (even an enchanted one)...but substitute "boy" for "frog" and you can be sure Tiana's reaction would have been the same. This is normal and expected (in the same scene, little Lottie's enthusiastic willingness to kiss a frog is so peculiar to us, we can't help but laugh). In the psychological landscape of fairy tales, it seems frogs are people too.

The Austrian-born American child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim, in his landmark book The Uses of Enchantment, identifies the psychological core of the original Brothers Grimm version of the fairy tale. He categorizes the story as belonging to a class of fairy tales that "...center on the shock of recognition when that which seemed animal [in us] suddenly reveals itself as the source of human happiness." (Yes--that's "happiness," not "hoppiness.")

The story of The Frog Prince, as traditionally told, has
always been loaded with psychological symbolism.
"The Princess and the Frog" by William Robert
Symonds. All rights reserved

To a young child, the physical and emotional particulars of adult intimacy come with a substantial "ick" factor and, at that age, seem nearly as appealing as the idea of kissing a frog ("It's not slime...it's mucous!") The story tells us that, in order to become well-balanced, loving, and happy adults, we must overcome our childhood revulsions, inhibitions, and preconceptions. It is a journey of transformation that Tiana must reluctantly undergo in a startlingly literal way, but the outcome for her (as for us in our own journeys toward maturity) is well worth the challenge.

External transformations are fairy tale mainstays, and physical metamorphoses are just as common in classical mythology. But in the metaphorical language of myths and fairy tales, these external transformations signify deep psychological changes. That is, of course, the essence of the Hero's Journey, which charts the emotional developments that each person must undergo in life to become a mature, centered, responsible adult. [If the Hero's Journey is new to you, here's a site that will get you up to speed in no time. And this is the mythic thrust of Tiana's journey in The Princess and the Frog as she finds herself abruptly transformed into an object of her own contempt. (To a similar extent, it is Prince Naveen's journey as well...but we'll get to him shortly.)

In myths and fairy tales, external transformations represent deep psychological changes.
Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

Much of the fun in watching The Princess and the Frog comes from observing how frog Tiana learns to shift her focus from her perceived need to make an external transformation (becoming human again) to her real internal need (becoming a fully-formed individual in the psychological sense) thanks to some cryptic mentoring from the voodoo priestess Mama Odie and the lessons Tiana learns from her encounters with the other characters she meets along the way.

Early in the movie, as we get to know Tiana--first as a child and soon after as a young woman--we find an individual who is smart, ambitious, pragmatic, and highly goal-oriented in pursuing her dream of owning her own restaurant. Yet, like many mythic heroes at the beginning of their journeys, Tiana's life is out of balance. The untimely death of her father James has apparently locked Tiana into her singular focus on her external goal to the detriment of her internal development.

A hero's journey often begins with an event that knocks the hero's
"ordinary world" out of balance--such as the death of Tiana's
father. Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

Though Tiana has splendid ambitions and a powerful work ethic, she lacks an inner life. Her daily (and nightly) existence consists of working back-to-back waitress jobs, hoping to collect enough tips to eventually buy the empty sugar mill that she one day hopes will become "Tiana's Place." There is no time left for going out with her friends...or even catching up on her sleep.

To Tiana, the promise of future fulfillment that is perpetually "almost there" is worth the sacrifice of her present-day happiness. Yet, ironically, Tiana's neglect of her inner life is part of what holds her back from actually achieving true happiness--in the present or in the future. Thus, when her Call to Adventure (her key to eventual happiness) arrives in the form of an enchanted talking frog, Tiana literally recoils, shrieking in disgust. It's an emphatic Refusal of the Call.

A refusal of the call to adventure? Oh yeah! Copyright Disney
Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

The frog prince, Naveen, represents the free spirit that Tiana has suppressed within herself. He lives purely in the moment and is perfectly content to leave the future to its own devices. Self-centered and irresponsible, Naveen is Tiana's mirror image. In Jungian terms, he is Tiana's animus as she is his anima. Or, using the Freudian model, you could say Naveen is mostly id while Tiana is predominantly superego. Neither character is emotionally complete; instead, each represents what the other is missing.

During the course of the movie, Tiana's evolution into a fully-actualized adult will be complete when she finally integrates Naveen's joy of living life to the fullest with her own sense of "hard work," responsibility, and self-discipline. For Naveen, the complementary transformation proves to be his own key to happiness. Ultimately, as a married couple, they will perfectly complete each other.

To make this transition, Tiana must acknowledge and embrace the deeply-repressed "animal" qualities that we all carry within us--the fact that all humans are part of nature and our lives are connected to the natural world in important ways. Like Tiana, many of us go through life believing that the key to success and happiness involves conquering our primal desires and impulses. But the truth is, a life of compulsive work and single-minded ambition is not a very joyous one (just ask Ebenezer Scrooge). Instead, we must aim for a healthy balance somewhere between the extremes.

Tiana's journey allows her to avoid falling into the "all work, no play" trap that has
ensnared other characters such as Ebenezer Scrooge. Copyright
ImageMovers Digital LLC. All rights reserved

Tiana's magical transformation into a frog brings the repressed animalistic elements of her personality out into the open (including the "yucky" parts), making them unavoidable and undeniable. Some, such as her ability to converse with other animals (alligators, fireflies, etc.,) prove crucial to her survival. Yet even then, frog Tiana persists in disowning these qualities; she's repulsed by her fly-catching super-elastic frog tongue, for instance, and continues to focus instead on her external goals.

Frog Tiana and frog Naveen's meeting with the mentor archetype Mama Odie should have provided Tiana with a moment of clarity. Though Mama Odie is blind, her ability to see into the characters of other people reveals the importance of "insight" and confirms that outward appearances are not as important as what's inside. "Dig down deep inside yourself, you'll find out what you need," she sings. But for now at least, the mentor's most important advice is lost on Tiana. Even after a pull-out-all-the-stops production number, Tiana still doesn't get it. She thinks "digging a little deeper" means she has to work even harder to open her restaurant. Silly frog!

As a mentor, Mama Odie's blindness allows her to ignore outward appearances to focus
on that which can not be seen. Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

Ultimately, it is Dr. Facilier who prods frog Tiana into discovering her suppressed inner potential. A true shadow figure, his identity is literally defined by his own wraith-like shadow--a fanciful yet chilling portrait of a clinical sociopath. His is a personality at war with itself--an individual so contemptuous of humanity, including his own, that he is eventually consumed by his personal demons.

Dr. Facilier offers an extreme example of what can happen when one fails to integrate the different components of one's personality. By the time frog Tiana encounters the Shadow Man, she has at last internalized this lesson. Her inner transformation is signaled when she finally "digs a little deeper" to embrace the full spectrum of her identity--even the "yucky" parts. Suddenly, Tiana is able to call upon all the primal capabilities that she had formerly suppressed. Thus, she has no hesitation when it comes to using her super-elastic frog tongue to retrieve and destroy the voodoo talisman, saving the day.

The dark side of Dr. Facilier takes physical form as a literal "shadow archetype."
Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

Through his acts of selflessness and devotion meanwhile, Prince Naveen, has demonstrated his embrace of the responsibilities of mature adulthood. Therefore, the moment frog Naveen and frog Tiana are joined in marriage, the voodoo spell is broken and the two are returned to their human forms. But they are no longer the people they were before their amphibious odyssey; the experience of their shared Hero's Journey has enabled them to evolve into fully-formed individuals...no longer "almost there" but instead capable of achieving any goal their hearts desire.

But you can bet they won't be serving frog legs at Tiana's Place....

Adam M. Berger is president and senior writer at Berger Creative Associates, Inc., an Orlando, Florida-based creative writing and consulting firm serving the themed entertainment and attraction design industry. You can read more of Adam's thoughts on mythic storytelling in popular entertainment at his blogsite: www.TheMythingLink.com.

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